The Project

The aim of The Poly-Olbion Pilot Project is to establish the parameters of a new critical edition of the complete text of Poly-Olbion, or, A chorographicall description of all the tracts, rivers, mountaines, forests, and other parts of this renowned isle of Great Britaine, taking Song 1 as a representative sample of the work. Given that no new edition of Drayton's poem has been published for decades, there is a clear need to renew the standing of this important early seventeenth-century text, giving current scholars access to a clear copy of Drayton's poem and Selden's notes in a single volume, complete with an up-to-date bibliography and comprehensive editorial notes on the work, compiled by a team of renowned experts on the subject.

Taking advantage of the latest freely-available web technologies, the Project's online presence offers a clear copy of the poem and Illustrations plus all accompanying marginalia, with Selden's notes and the line(s) of poetry to which they refer hyperlinked for ease of navigation. In addition, new editorial notes accompanying the poem are freely available to view, written by Prof. Andrew McRae and Prof. Philip Schwyzer at the University of Exeter's Department of English.

Supplementing the text, this website contains futher information and features designed to enhance a reading of the work. In addition to a detailed biography of the author, a Google Maps snapshot of the south-west region of England described in Song 1 of the poem has been embedded into the site, customised to include pinpoints indiciating a variety of locations mentioned by Drayton; each pinpoint has been expanded to include the relevant section of the poem which refers to it, together with Creative Commons-licensed photographs of the subject(s) under consideration, sourced via the Flickr photo-sharing website.

Using Zotero, an open-source research management tool, a group library has been set up externally to provide additional resources beyond the bibliography on this site (which accompanies the editorial notes). Zotero users may request an invitation to join the group, allowing them to contribute additional items to the library - read more on this feature on the Bibliography page. Finally, an extensive list of links highlights a wide range of other resources on the web devoted to medieval and early modern scholarship.

The Poet

Michael Drayton

Michael Drayton was born of humble origins early in 1563 near Nuneaton, Warwickshire. Little is known about his early life, beyond his service to Thomas Goodere of Collingham, Nottinghamshire, in 1580. According to one tesimony, Drayton was summoned to Thomas Goodere's sickroom shortly before Goodere died on 5 January 1585, and witnessed Thomas's instructions to his wife concerning the lease of Collingham Manor. Although some nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars suggested that Drayton might have studied at the University of Oxford, there is no evidence that he did so.

Drayton produced his first book, The Harmonie of the Church (once confused with The Triumphes of the Churche, which was destroyed by church authorities) in 1591, and was by this time settled in London. The volume consists of spiritual poems, and its preface thanks 'the godly and vertuous' Lady Jane Devereux for her 'bountifull hospitalitie'. Idea: the Shepheards Garland appeared in 1593, a collection of nine eclogues written under the poetic name of Rowland and modelled on Spenser's Shepheardes Calender; the fourth eclogue laments the death of Sir Philip Sidney in battle, and is later referenced by Nathaniel Baxter in his Sir Philip Sydneys Ourania (1606). The basic concept of Idea was expanded in a cycle of sixty-four sonnets, called Idea's Mirror, published in 1594.

The first of Drayton's historical poems, Peirs Gaveston, Earle of Cornwall, was published in 1593, followed in 1594 by Matilda: the Faire and Chaste Daughter of the Lord Robert Fitzwater, an epic poem in rhyme royal. Shortly afterwards, Drayton published Endymion and Phoebe, consisting of 516 couplets that recount a sleeping shepherd's vision of the cosmos. Drayton's Mortimeriados was published in 1595, originally dedicated to the countess of Bedford, but for its 1603 republication as The Barrons Wars (wherein it was enlarged and modified) the poet, having abandoned hopes for her patronage, withdrew the dedication and cancelled various other references to her.

The Owle

Englands Heroicall Epistles was published in 1597, a series of historical studies written in heroic couplets and modelled in part on Ovid's Heroides. From late 1597 to 1604 Drayton collaborated with Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, and others on more than twenty plays for the Lord Admiral's Men, only one of which has survived - The First Part of Sir John Oldcastle (printed in 1606), written with Robert Wilson, Richard Hathway, and Munday. None of these plays were included in Drayton's collected works (1619).

Although seemingly in favour at the court of Elizabeth, Drayton experienced a change of fortune under the new monarch King James following his ascension to the English throne in 1603. The poet published his To the Majestie of King James: a Gratulatorie Poem to welcome the king, and the following year saw A paean triumphall: composed for the societie of the goldsmiths of London, congratulating his highnes magnificent entring the Citie. Nevertheless, Drayton's efforts were mocked or his flattery ignored, and in April 1604 the spurned fomer royal favourite expressed his bitterness in his satire, The Owle, dedicating it to Sir Walter Aston, a rich and appreciative gentleman who had once made Drayton one of his esquires, a title the poet proudly displayed on the title pages of his books. Drayton dedicated the 1603 version of The Barrons Wars, Moyses in a Map of his Miracles (1604), and his collected Poems (1605) to Aston. Poemes Lyrick and Pastorall: Odes, Eglogs, the Man in the Moone saw print shortly after, probably in 1606, and contains some of Drayton's best poems. The 1610 edition appeared with a commendatory sonnet by John Selden, whilst the 1619 folio includes an ode to the lawyer John Savage and another to a rose, arguably read as nostalgia for Elizabeth.

Michael Drayton

It was in 1612 that Drayton published the first eighteen songs of his longest poem, Poly-Olbion, or, A chorographicall description of all the tracts, rivers, mountaines, forests, and other parts of this renowned isle of Great Britaine, on which he had began working as early as 1598. "The title-page shows an enthroned 'Great Britain' with a faint smirk on her face, positioned so as to give her the same shape as her nation. Draped in a map of the lands she personifies, she is as prettily blonde as any Petrarchan mistress but with a cornucopia symbolizing fertility. She is surrounded by four lovers/conquerors: the Trojan Brute [...], the Roman Caesar, the Saxon Hengst, and the Norman William. It is she who holds a sceptre, though, for Drayton's celebration of British history, legends, cities, hills, vales, and rivers suggests a nation with an identity, realized or potential, beyond any one conqueror's scope" (ODNB). The title itself means 'Many blessings', but also 'Multiple Albion'. Included within is a portrait of Prince Henry, the poem's dedicatee, who died that November. John Selden's exhaustive annotations (or 'Illustrations') comment (with frequent scepticism) on the poem's legends and descriptions, though the scholar was not to feature in the second, extended edition of the work, eventually published in 1622. The poet, who had hoped "to crown Scotland with flowers," and arrive at last at the Orcades, never crossed the Tweed.

Poems by Michael Drayton Esquyer (1619) saw another decication to Aston, and was divided into seven parts, each with its own title-page. The Battaile of Agincourt appeared in 1627, whose preface features verses by admirers including Ben Jonson (who, some time before, was recorded as having said that he 'esteemed not' of Drayton and claimed that 'Drayton feared him'), and whose best-known poem is the mock-heroic 'Nimphidia, the Courte of Fayrie'. Among the volume's 'elegies' is an epistle to Henry Reynolds that includes a comment on Shakespeare:

                     in thy naturall braine,
As strong conception, and as Cleere a rage,
As any one that trafiqu'd with the stage.

In March 1627 Drayton was involved in a lawsuit, accused of commending a woman's private parts. Although the verdict from the case is lost, such an act would be totally out of character for Drayton, and the evidence suggests that the woman who claimed to have witnessed the act was lying. There is, moreoever, no evidence to suggest that Drayton had any interest in heterosexual passion, even though Edmund Gayton later claimed that the poet did in fact marry. The last of Drayton's voluminous publications was The Muses' Elizium lately discovered, by a new way over Parnassus [...] Noah's floud, Moses, his birth and miracles, David and Golia, published in 1630 and dedicated to the earl of Dorset. He died in London in 1631, probably in late December, leaving an estate of £24 2s. 8d. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and had a monument erected to him by the countess of Dorset.


During his life, Drayton drew praise from such fellow poets as Richard Barnfield, Thomas Lodge, Joshua Sylvester, Sir William Alexander, Francis Beaumont, and William Browne, and he would have almost certainly known Shakespeare, although no credible written evidence for this remains. Though disappointed by the countess of Bedford and James I, he was very welcome at Aston's estate, and was much read and published in his own day, though less so in the eighteenth century. Drayton did, however, appeal to the Romantic poets and his reputation increased in the nineteenth century, furthered in the twentieth century by a rapid increase in scholarship devoted to him. A complete six volume edition of Drayton's work was published by Oxford in 1931-41 (revised 1961), edited by J. William Hebel, K. Tillotson and B. H. Newdigate, containing a wealth of material in its biographical chronology, lists of variants, and bibliographical analyses by Bent Juel-Jensen. That volume, and a two-volume edition of Drayton's poems published at Harvard in 1953, are the only twentieth century editions of his poems recorded by the Library of Congress.

The ODNB entry on him sums up the richness of the poet's style: "Writing in an array of genres, Drayton can move from Neoplatonic flights to pastoral retreats free of royal neglect and the sad need to scramble for funds; to grieved witness of Time's hungry destruction of women and walls; to ironic visions of court life; and to an image of the British landscape in which rivers with excellent historical memories, boastful hills that look down on equally voluble valleys, rivers that run on at the mouth, self-assured towns, and lively fauna leave scant room for monarchy as the Stuarts conceived it. Drayton will seldom excite the enthusiasm many feel for Spenser, Donne, or Jonson: sensing himself estranged from his own age, he may still remain too much of it. Yet he repays the reader, especially one looking less for the stolid moralism or simple patriotism with which he has been too often identified than for sardonic melancholy, political resistance, airy delicacy, and access to realms invisible to the merely well born or rich. Any poet who can, in the poem Robert, Duke of Normandie, have Fortune tell Memory, with a savage pun, that 'Written with Bloud, thy sad Memorials lye' deserves attention."